Student Visas and Student Sponsors - Covid-19 FAQs
FAQs arising from the Home Office’s published Covid-19 Guidance
We summarise below FAQs arising from the Home Office’s Covid-19 Guidance
The Covid-19 Guidance was updated by the Home Office on 1 July 2021 and contains important updates to concessions relating to distance/blended learning and the Graduate Visa route which launched on 1 July 2021.
What is the difference between blended learning and distance learning?
Students and Child Students are not usually permitted under the UK Immigration Rules to undertake distance or blended learning. However, the Home Office introduced distance learning concessions due to the exceptional circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic.
For the first time, the Home Office’s updated Covid-19 Guidance provides definitions of ‘distance learning’ and ‘blending learning’:
- Distance learning is learning that takes place entirely remotely, without any face-to-face teaching or research activities on the sponsor’s sites
- Blended learning requires students to be physically in the UK at least some of the time to attend their studies in person, while undertaking some study elements online
This is an important distinction for student sponsors to be aware of as the concessions relating to course delivery and academic engagement monitoring distinguish between these different learning delivery models.
Can we sponsor new students via distance learning?
Yes - sponsors can issue a Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) to new Students and Child Students who will start studying through distance learning from overseas in the 2021-22 academic year. This is provided they transition to face-to-face learning when they arrive in the UK. This must be by no later than 6 April 2022.
The extension of the current Covid-19 distance learning concession until 6 April 2022 has been put in place to avoid a surge in travel, especially from red list countries, and the associated resources needed to comply with quarantining measures. It also aims to help student sponsors manage the arrival of international students for the new Academic Year 2021/2022.
Can we continue sponsoring existing students via distance learning?
Yes - distance learning is acceptable until 27 September 2021. Student Sponsors can continue to sponsor Students or Child Students (including Tier 4 visa holders) who are continuing their studies through distance learning, whether they are in the UK or another country, until 27 September 2021. This includes continuing to sponsor students for examinations and assessments.
The Covid-19 Guidance also confirms that sponsors are not required to withdraw sponsorship if an existing sponsored student is unable to return to the UK prior to 27 September 2021 due to travel restrictions. Student Sponsors can continue to provide distance learning for existing sponsored students who are outside the UK who will transition to face-to-face or blended learning in the UK before 06 April 202.
Where a student is continuing their studies via distance learning overseas or via blended learning within the UK (when permitted), Sponsors do not need to report this as a change of student circumstances.
Can Student Sponsors deliver courses through blended learning for the academic year 2021/2022?
Yes – but not for the entire academic year under current Covid-19 concessions.
Blended learning requires students to be physically in the UK at least some of the time to attend their studies in person, while undertaking some study elements online. The Covid-19 Guidance published on 1 July 2021 confirms that Student Sponsors are permitted to adopt a blended learning model for sponsored students who are studying in the UK until 6 April 2022 only.
From 27 September 2021 onwards, sponsors will not be able to provide tuition which is delivered entirely remotely to students who are undertaking their studies within the UK. There must be some face-to-face learning. A minimum level of face-to-face contact is specified in the Covid-19 Guidance as follows:
- Sponsors must have face-to-face contact with sponsored students who are doing blended learning in the UK at least twice per month during term time, on a rolling four-week basis, unless less frequent contact is already permitted under the academic engagement policy set out in the Student Sponsor guidance.
Will online learning count towards the 15 hours’ study per week requirement for below degree level courses?
Yes - students studying courses below degree level via distance or blended learning are required to undertake 15 hours of study per week from 27 September 2021. When studying overseas, there must be 15 hours study by distance learning per week. For those in the UK studying by blended learning, the online element of study will count towards the 15 hours.
The Covid-19 Guidance states that sponsors of students studying courses below degree level must ensure as far as possible that students are genuinely attending the online elements of study, rather than, for example, just logging on with a device while engaging in other activity.
Do we need to report students who miss ten expected contact points due to Covid-19?
No - where students are commencing or continuing studies overseas via distance learning, and will therefore not meet the requirements for recording physical contact points under a sponsor’s duty to monitor attendance, Student Sponsors do not need to report them to the Home Office for missing expected face to face contact points.
The Covid-19 Guidance also states that where a student is studying by distance learning, Student Sponsors should monitor academic engagement, where possible, by using expected online contact points, such as logging on to online learning portals and attending virtual lectures and tutorials and online submission of coursework. Student Sponsors should ensure that their students know their engagement will be monitored in this way and the requirements that they must meet. However, the Covid-19 Guidance confirms that the Home Office will not take action against sponsors who are unable to monitor online contact points due to practical or technical limitations.
Where a student is studying by blended learning in the UK (which includes some in-person studies), the sponsor must monitor a student’s attendance at expected physical contact points as usual and report a student where the student fails to engage with the course or attend the required contact points.
Sponsors also do not need to report student absences related to Covid-19. This can include absences due to illness, students’ need to isolate or their inability to travel due to travel restrictions. Sponsors must maintain records of students who are absent for these reasons. Sponsors should ensure that attendance records include evidence that any student absence is Covid-19 related.
Will Covid-19 related student withdrawals affect our Basic Compliance Assessment?
No - the Covid-19 Guidance confirms that students who do withdraw from their studies as a result of Covid-19 will be discounted from a student sponsor’s data in future Basic Compliance Assessments. Sponsors should notify UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) of the reason for the withdrawal and retain records to evidence that a student has withdrawn for Covid-19 related reasons.
Can a CAS be used to support a visa application where it has expired or the course start date on the CAS has changed due to Covid-19?
Yes - where a CAS was issued between 24 January 2020 and 31 December 2020, Student and Child Student applications can still be made using a CAS that was previously issued.
The Covid-19 Guidance confirms the Home Office will take a pragmatic approach to considering applications to study courses with significantly different start dates to those stated on a CAS or expired CAS. Where the course start date has changed, if the CAS is not marked as ‘used’ or ‘expired’, sponsors should add a sponsor note to the CAS to update the Home Office with the new course start date.
Where a CAS issued between 24 January 2020 and 31 December 2020 has become invalid because it has expired, or was marked as ‘used’ in an application and the student was unable to travel due to Covid-19, the Home Office will exceptionally consider accepting that same CAS with a new visa application on a case by case basis. The CAS will be accepted if the Home Office caseworker is satisfied that the reason the applicant couldn’t previously use it in an application or to travel to the UK was due to Covid-19.
The Covid-19 Guidance confirms that if a Student Sponsor is assigning a CAS to a student based on a temporary concession, this must be noted in either the evidence section of the CAS or the Sponsor Notes field of the CAS.
Can we accept copies of a sponsored student’s Biometric Residence Permit (BRP) and passports where we cannot see the originals?
Yes - where it is no longer practical or safe for a student to submit these documents in person, or where sponsor sites are closed due to Covid-19 social distancing measures, the Covid-19 Guidance confirms that it is acceptable for a digital copy, such as a scan or photograph, to be provided and kept on file to comply with a sponsor’s record-keeping requirements.
Where a student cannot take an English Language test as the test centre is closed in their home country, can we self-assess the student’s English Language ability ourselves?
Yes – but only in relation to pre sessional English courses.
Many English Language Test centres globally have resumed services. Where an English Language Testing centre has re-opened, students are required to obtain a Secure English Language Test (SELT) in the normal way.
If an English Language Test Centre is unavailable, sponsors who are Higher Education Providers with a track record of compliance can self-assess a student’s English Language ability at CEFR Level B1, only where:
- A student cannot take the test as a result of the closure of test centres in their country and
- They need to study a pre sessional course
If a SELT test centre reopens after a CAS has been assigned under this concession but before the CAS has been used in an application, the student must take a SELT test and the CAS updated accordingly. The only exception is if an English Language Test Centre opens less than 7 calendar days before the application was submitted, in which case an applicant can rely on their Higher Education provider's English Language assessment.
Are there any additional considerations for sponsored students who are under 18?
Yes - any sponsor currently sponsoring a student aged under 18 on the new Child Student Route (including Tier 4 Child Students) has a continuing duty of care while the child remains under its sponsorship and is in the UK - even if the child has stopped studying.
Such safeguarding duties mean that sponsors of Child Students must continue to ensure suitable care arrangements are in place for them if they remain in the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic, even if they are not attending classes.
Our Ofsted inspection has been delayed due to Covid-19. Will this be a problem for our Student Sponsor licence?
No - statutory inspection cycles are being affected and potentially delayed by restrictions on physical inspections during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Home Office has confirmed that unless it already has serious concerns about a sponsor, it will take a pragmatic approach to unavoidable delays in inspections caused by Covid-19. It will also allow inspection bodies to use other inspection methods, such as virtual meetings or desk-based inspections.
The Covid-19 Guidance confirms the Home Office will not reduce a sponsor’s CAS allocation to zero due to Educational Oversight delays - this is on the expectation that any delayed interim reviews or full inspections will be conducted as soon as possible. Student Sponsors are advised to keep a record of any communications from their Educational Oversight body about cancelled, delayed or desk-based inspections.
Can we still expect a Home Office compliance audit?
Yes – the Home Office confirmed on 12 August 2020 that it has resumed sponsorship compliance audits of sponsors. Compliance visiting activity had been suspended following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020.
New measures are in place during Home Office Compliance Visits to comply with public health advice and ensure social distancing is observed.
Student Visa Applicants
I am currently in the UK on a visitor visa. Can I stay in the UK and switch to a Student visa?
Yes - if you have permission as a Visitor or Short-Term Student, or in another category that cannot normally switch to Student permission within the UK, and this permission ended before 1 July 2021, a concession in the guidance Coronavirus (COVID-19): advice for UK visa applicants and temporary UK residents allows you to exceptionally switch into student or Child Student permission from within the UK.
However, if your Visitor or Short-Term Student permission expires after 1 July 2021, the new Student and Child Student rules provide that you cannot apply from within the UK for a Student or Child Student visa. You would need to leave the UK and apply from your home country for a Student or a Child Student visa.
As a result of Covid-19, my studies have been disrupted and I cannot finish my course before my Student visa expires. Can I apply to extend my Student visa from the UK?
Yes – to obtain further permission to complete an existing course, you must still meet all other requirements of the Student or Child Student routes, including the financial requirement if you have been in the UK for less than one year with valid permission. Students must normally apply to study a course that commences no more than 28 days after their current period of permission expires. However, the Covid-19 Guidance confirms that the Home Office will exercise discretion if the start date of the new course named on the CAS is no later than 27 September 2021. This ’28 day rule’ concession applies to students who already hold permission on the Student or Child routes (including Tier 4).
Students who are unable to complete their course of study within their current period of student immigration permission due to Covid-19 can apply from within the UK to complete that course. This includes students who need further time to complete an assessment or sit exams. Student Sponsors can issue a CAS for students who need to take an exam or assessment remotely. Students who need to repeat a year, retake a module or resit an exam are exempt from demonstrating academic progression as would normally be required for those applying in the UK. Further to this exemption, students who would otherwise need more time to complete a course as a result of Covid-19 will be exempt from demonstrating academic progression (for example, where a sponsor suspended studies for the duration of any social distancing measures).
Can I start my course before my Student or Child Student visa application has been decided?
Yes – where you have submitted a Student or Child Student application in the UK, the Covid-19 Guidance confirms you can start your course before your visa application has been decided, provided the following conditions are satisfied:
- Your sponsor is a Student Sponsor
- You have a CAS
- The course start date is on or before 30 June 2021
- You submitted your application before your current visa expired and provided your sponsor with evidence of this
- The course you start is the same as the one listed on your CAS
- You have a valid Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS) certificate, if required for your course of studies.
Please note, however, if your Student or Child Student visa application is eventually rejected as invalid or refused, your sponsor would have to end teaching and withdraw your sponsorship.
As a result of Covid-19, my studies have been disrupted and it will take longer than expected to complete my course. Will the Student rules about maximum study lengths provide any flexibility to allow me to study my next course in the UK?
Maybe - the maximum length of time that a student can be granted permission to study in the UK below postgraduate level will remain the same (i.e. 2 years for below degree level study and 5 years for degree level subject to limited exceptions). However, the Covid-19 Guidance confirms the Home Office may apply discretion in the future where any period of visa permission that would cause a student to exceed the study limits was as a result of Covid-19. Under the new Student Route, there is no time limit for those studying above degree level.
I am from a country which is on the ‘red list’. I have a Student route or Tier 4 (General) vignette (visa sticker in passport) or BRP (Biometric Residence Permit). Can I travel to the UK?
Yes – you can travel to the UK. For people from ‘red list’ countries, you are only banned from travelling to the UK if you a third country national who does not hold UK residency rights (and are not a British or Irish national).
According to the current guidance, students travelling to the UK with a new vignette or Biometric Residence Permit under the Student visa or Child Student visa routes (or Tier 4 General or Tier 4 Child) are considered to have such ‘residency rights’. This means they are currently permitted to travel to the UK from a ‘red list’ country.
However, if you are from a red list country and have residency rights, you are required to quarantine in a special-arranged hotel accommodation when you arrive at your own expense.
When I arrive in the UK to start my studies, will I have to self-isolate on arrival?
Maybe - it depends what country you are travelling from but many people are subject to self- isolation (quarantine) rules upon arrival in the UK. Student visa holders have no general exemption from these self-isolation requirements.
In order to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and minimise travel to the UK, the UK is currently operating a 'traffic light' system (green, amber, red) which applies to every person travelling to the UK. The colour which applies to you depends on what country you are travelling to the UK from.
If you travel from a green list country, there is no self-isolation requirement (unless you have a positive Covid-19 test after your arrival).
Most individuals from amber and red list countries are subject to self-isolation (quarantine) rules after arrival in the UK and must self-isolate for 10 days. If you arrive from a red list country you must pre-book a 10 day stay at a designated quarantine hotel at your own expense.
If you arrive from an amber list country you can quarantine at a nominated address. From 19 July 2021, the Government will no longer recommend against travel to amber list countries and people covered by the amber list rules, who have been fully vaccinated with an NHS vaccine, will not need to quarantine on arrival in England, Wales or Scotland (except where arriving from France). Those who have been fully vaccinated with an NHS vaccine will be exempt from self-isolation on arrival in Northern Ireland from 26 July 2021 (unless arriving from France).
If you are travelling to the UK from outside of the Common Travel Area you are required to provide a negative Covid-19 test result before you are allowed to travel to the UK.
If quarantining (self-isolating) on arrival is required, then having a negative Covid-19 test result before arrival will not remove this requirement.
Every person must also take one or more Covid tests after they arrive in the UK - this includes arrival from green, amber and red list countries.
There is also a Test to Release voluntary Scheme which you can register for before travel to the UK. This allows you to take a private test on day 5 after your UK arrival. If the test shows that you are not infected, you may end your self-isolation when you receive the results. The scheme operates in England only and is not open to those travelling from 'red list' countries.
Whether you are studying in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, you can find specific information about pre-travel Covid-19 testing, safe travel, and self-isolation (quarantine) rules in the guidance issued by the respective governments of the four UK countries:
- England gov.uk/coronavirus including 'testing before you travel to England'
- Scotland gov.scot/coronavirus-covid-19 including international travel and managed isolation (quarantine)
- Wales gov.wales/coronavirus
- Northern Ireland nidirect.gov.uk/campaigns/coronavirus-covid-19
You should contact your Student Sponsor about support they are putting in place for international students needing to self-isolate upon arrival.
I have a police registration condition in my Student visa. How will I do this if my local police station is closed?
Many police forces throughout the UK have suspended police registration. You should check the website of your local police force or ask your Student Sponsor whether it is possible to register at this time. Where it is not possible, the Covid-19 Guidance states students must register with the police or update their information once police services re-open.
You will not be penalised for not attending or making a police registration appointment if you are, or someone you live with is, ill or if the registration service is not operating. This includes people who have left the UK without registering, and who will need to re-enter the UK in the future. You will be expected to register when your local police force resumes service.
Will I still be eligible for a Graduate visa if I had to study some of my degree course overseas through distance learning due to Covid-19?
Yes – provided you fall within the Covid-19 concession outlined below and satisfy the other criteria for a Graduate Visa application (namely, you have successfully completed an eligible course at a higher education provider in the UK with a track record of compliance and you make your application from within the UK when you still hold valid Student visa permission).
The Graduate Visa route launched on 1 July 2021. Students are normally expected to have studied in the UK to be eligible for this post study work visa. However, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, concessions have been put in place for international students who are currently distance learning outside the UK and who may face continued disruption to international travel.
Firstly, there is no deadline for returning to the UK if your course is longer than 12 months, whenever it started. Students sponsored for a course lasting longer than 12 months will not be prevented from being eligible for a Graduate Visa as a result of any distance learning that took place either in the UK or overseas between 24 January 2020 and 27 September 2021 or any distance learning which took place overseas between 27 September 2021 and 6 April 2022. If your current student permission expires prior to 6 April 2022, you must enter the UK prior to the expiry of your Student visa, rather than 6 April 2022.
However, if you began a course of 12 months or less in 2020 or 2021 and have been distance learning in your home country for the whole course so far, you will need to come to the UK under the Student Route by 27 September 2021. If your Student visa ends before that date anyway, you must come to the UK by the end date of your Student visa.
If you began a course of 12 months or less in 2020 or 2021 and you already came to the UK during that period of Student Visa route permission and then switched to distance learning from your home country, you just need to return to the UK on or before the end date of your Student Visa permission in order to make a Graduate Visa application.
If you are starting a course of 12 months or less in Autumn 2021 or Spring 2022 via distance learning from overseas, you must enter the UK no later than 6 April 2022 and complete that course of study in the UK with permission as a Student to be eligible for the Graduate Route. Students should travel once they are able to do so.
International students due to graduate in 2021 and currently studying overseas also need to bear in mind current Covid-19 travel restrictions when planning to return to the UK in order to apply for a Graduate visa. For instance, if you are arriving from one of the current 56 ‘red list’ countries, you must pre-book a 10 day stay at a designated quarantine hotel at your own expense and it is mandatory to take Covid-19 tests on Days 2 and 8. See the FAQs above dealing with self-isolation and testing requirements.
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If you have any questions about Tier 4 immigration (Child Visa and Child Student Visa) please get in touch with Anita de Atouguia